IT managers should start planning now for Microsoft Exchange 12, the next version of Microsoft's e-mail, contacts and office collaboration platform, IT analysts have advised.
The biggest change is that the new version will only run on hybrid 32/64-bit servers, based on Intel's EM64T Xeon processor and the AMD64 Opteron processor. However, Microsoft will not offer Exchange 12 support for Itanium (IA-64) processors. Nor will there be a 32-bit only version.
So organisations will need to update their IT hardware if they have not already done so. This is not like the shift from Exchange Server 2000 to 2003, which ran on 32-bit hardware.
Microsoft said users will get a boost in performance from the 64-bit version of Exchange. The platform can handle greater demands for e-mail access, and offers stronger security, larger inboxes and bigger storage, said the company.
Exchange 12 also has a number of features designed to aid an organisation's ability to collaborate and work more efficiently. For example, it has unified messaging for the first time, bringing e-mails, voicemails and faxes into one inbox, which has an embedded Windows Media Player to play media files.
So, from within the Outlook or Outlook Web Access inbox, voicemail appears as a new e-mail message with a .wav extension, which the embedded Windows Media Player will play. Similarly, a fax appears as a .gif or other graphic file attached to the message.
It also has better security and manageability through a set of what Microsoft calls "server roles", enabling IT administrators to install and manage only the components that their company requires.
With the server roles system, most servers sit behind the firewall or in a demilitarised zone (DMZ) at the edge of the network. Edge servers will sit in this DMZ and will relay e-mail, cleaning it up through anti-virus and spam filtering. These so-called "edge services" are provided for mobile and remote Exchange access, and boost the infrastructure's security, said Microsoft.
Exchange 12 also offers easier application integration for developers and third-party software suppliers through the use of web services, replacing component object model (COM)-based application programming interfaces (APIs).
Exchange customers should start using these new interfaces immediately, said Erica Rugullies, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Exchange customers should not invest in building additional applications using the COM-based APIs that Microsoft will either be cutting or de-emphasising in Exchange 12."
She added, "Developers will have to rewrite some older application interfaces. They may have to recreate interfaces they built or implemented for Exchange Server versions 2003 and older.
"This will increase the difficulty of maintaining mixed environments containing Exchange 12 and older versions, where old APIs were used to integrate with applications."
Another change is that Exchange 12 will allow users to collaborate more easily through new messaging features such as the universal inbox. It will also build on groupware product Sharepoint Portal Server, which will link into the forthcoming Office 12 application, and use the XML standard to integrate business data into a range of applications.
Microsoft Sharepoint does not require any particular mail server, but "the tightest integration" is available with Microsoft Exchange Server, said Microsoft in a technical paper.
As a result, users will be able to collaborate more easily over the web using public folders to share information from their Outlook inbox and other mail folders, and their Tasks and Calendar folders, among others.
Bob Tarzey, services director at Quocirca, said, "People have been used to the high level of collaboration they get through using Outlook and Sharepoint Portal with Exchange at the back end. This collaboration will be more achievable with Exchange 12 [through the use of web services].
"The aim of the whole Exchange and Office 12 release is to make collaboration more achievable for users of all sizes, but what will be required is that people take up the back-end product as well."
Office 12 includes new versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, Access, Infopath, Onenote, Publisher, Project and Visio.
Exchange 12 is expected to be generally available in the first half of 2007, but Maurene Caplan Grey, principal analyst at Grey Consulting, said organisations should start migration planning now - even if they have only just migrated off Exchange 5.5. "Very preliminary plans for major upgrades should start years in advance of actual deployments," she said.
Many organisations will recall experiencing difficulties migrating from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000 or 2003, issues that Microsoft has recognised, said analysts. With this in mind, organisations should plan carefully and early, said Grey.
"In developing your Exchange 12 timeline, factor in interdependencies with infrastructure or application software that relies on or is required by Exchange 12. Examples may include the Realtime Communications [RTC] server applications, Office [which includes Outlook] and third-party applications," she said.
Organisations should also think hard about the move to 64-bit hardware, said Grey. "In planning a migration to Exchange 12, the enterprise must balance the depreciated value of its current 32-bit servers against the cost of new 64-bit servers. Separately, consider whether the performance improvements resulting from a 64-bit server [increased memory and cache, for example] are a 'must have' versus a 'nice to have' for your company," she said.
Overall, Grey said organisations should exercise a high degree of due diligence before making any migration decisions.
They must develop a top-level Exchange 12 deployment timeline, but understand that it will undergo many refinements. Finally, users should synchronise their Exchange 12 upgrade programme to minimise the impact on the Active Directory architecture, said Grey.
All this preparation is important because this is the first Microsoft release to run only as a 64-bit application. This will make the typical Exchange version migration slower and more complex, warned analyst Gartner.
"Enterprises will need to validate their readiness to deploy and support Windows Server 2003 x64 within their production environments," said Garter analysts Matthew Cain and Stephen Kleynhans.
"This will require an understanding of the subtle differences between the operating systems, as well as validation of hardware support and third-party management and support tools."
According to Gartner, many users have begun to experiment with Windows Server x64 for certain focused services (notably SQL Server and Terminal Services), but few have certified it for broad internal deployment.
Initially, Gartner expects most enterprises to deploy mixed Exchange 2000/2003 and Exchange 12 configurations, to avoid wholesale server replacements - for example, upgrading performance- intensive mailbox and front-end servers to Exchange 12, but leaving public-folder, relay and bridgehead servers running on older versions.
Cain and Kleynhans believe the performance improvements made possible by this change justify any migration problems.
Gartner has found Exchange bottlenecks typically revolve around disc I/O performance. Microsoft claims the new version of Exchange will improve disk I/O by up to 70% through larger cache sizes.
But the change will be less popular with small and medium-sized businesses, which have fewer demands for the extra performance promised and are typically wary of server upgrades, Gartner noted.
What you should do depending on your version of Exchange
Erica Rugullies, principal analyst at Forrester Research, suggests what to do according to which version of Exchange Server you use.
Exchange Server 5.5
Move off Exchange 5.5 as soon as possible. Support has now ended and Microsoft will not provide a direct migration option to Exchange 12. Or migrate to Exchange 2003 with SP2. Take advantage of improvements such as server and site consolidation, Active Directory, and better mobility support.
Or switch to an alternative messaging platform. The top three options are IBM Lotus Notes/Domino, Novell GroupWise, and Oracle Collaboration Suite.
Exchange Server 2000
Conduct a careful analysis and draw up a plan. Remember that Exchange 2000 is in extended support until January 2011, and this does not include non-security-related hotfix support, among other things. Further support could be costly.
Upgrade to Exchange 2003 with SP2, then wait to consider Exchange 12. This is the best option if you want to centralise your Exchange environments, roll out mobility services to users, or wait for the first Exchange 12 service pack.
Or skip Exchange 2003 and implement Exchange 12. This offers all the benefits of Exchange 2003 plus improvements such as server roles, web services, 64-bit hardware and unified messaging.
Exchange Server 2003
Install SP2 and migrate to Exchange 12 within three years. Implement SP2 if you could benefit from mobility improvements, such as direct push e-mail. New management features include device policy provisioning and local or remote device wipe. Wireless sync includes e-mail, calendar, contacts and tasks.
Or plan to migrate to Exchange 12 in 2007, or beyond. Exchange 12 will offer a number of improvements over Exchange 2003. Users that have hit performance or scalability limits with Exchange 2003 may want to take part in the first public beta of Exchange, mid-2006.
Five new features of Exchange 12
Microsoft said it chose to make Exchange 12 run on hybrid 32/64-bit servers only because it will boost its performance. The decision was driven by higher e-mail access demands; stronger security requirements; larger inboxes; and bigger storage needs, said Microsoft.
Edge services are essentially a sophisticated system to relay mail, and feature tighter security. Edge services are deployed at the perimeter of the e-mail network, and manage e-mail security services such as anti-virus and spam filtering, and mail routing through the internet.
The new software features what Microsoft calls "server roles", which enable IT administrators to install and manage only the components required by a company. This also brings simplified navigation and new filtering capabilities through a new graphical management console.
The platform will allow communications to be delivered to a single inbox repository, whether they are e-mails, voice messages or faxes. Windows Media Player is embedded within the message itself to play media files. E-mail messages can also be accessed through telephone voicemail with Exchange 12.
Web services support
Exchange 12 will help developers to integrate applications more easily through the use of web services, in place of component object model (COM)-based application programming interfaces (APIs).